PINOT NOIR

The grape be­hind red bur­gundy is tricky to grow but the re­sults can be mag­i­cal.

France - - Contents -

No other red wine has the aro­matic com­plex­ity and se­duc­tive charm of good pinot noir, es­pe­cially when grown on the near-price­less slopes of Bur­gundy’s Côte d’or.

The best of these wines show an ex­quis­ite com­bi­na­tion of haunt­ing per­fumes, red fruit and min­eral flavours that act like a taster’s road map to the vine­yards in which their grapes are grown. “Sex in a glass!” is how Amer­i­can master som­me­lier Made­line Trif­fon fa­mously de­scribed pinot noir; which also played the star­ring role (to the detri­ment of the much-ma­ligned mer­lot) in Alexan­der Payne’s 2004 wine com­edy Side­ways.

If the plea­sure that fine pinot gives to wine drinkers is dif­fi­cult to mea­sure, the chal­lenges it presents to wine­mak­ers are of­ten con­sid­er­able. “God made caber­net sauvi­gnon whereas the devil made pinot noir,” de­clared trail­blaz­ing Cal­i­for­nian viti­cul­tur­ist An­dré Tche­listch­eff, who un­der­stood just how awk­ward pinot can be.

Even be­fore their grapes ap­pear, pinot vines are sen­si­tive to both frost – a fre­quent haz­ard in Bur­gundy – and wind. Vines must be well pruned to avoid even­tual over-crop­ping, which can pre­vent the berries from reach­ing full ma­tu­rity. Grapes grow in tightly clus­tered bunches, which are prone to rot; and even once picked, pinot must be vini­fied with care­ful tem­per­a­ture con­trol and metic­u­lous yeast se­lec­tion. The ripeness win­dow is also a small one: pick too early and the wine will show a sour, stalky char­ac­ter, while over­ripe grapes can give cooked, jammy flavours.

De­spite its caprices, pinot noir’s wine­mak­ing pedi­gree is an an­cient one; it is thought to be closely re­lated to the vines that once grew wild in the forests of Europe be­fore viti­cul­ture was es­tab­lished. The pinot vine is prone to mu­ta­tion, ex­ist­ing in noir, blanc and gris in­car­na­tions. Pinot blanc gen­er­ally makes fullish, food-friendly dry white wines, es­pe­cially in Al­sace, while pinot gris (with its pink berries but clear juice) makes some of Al­sace’s best late-har­vest sweet whites – a world away from the mass-mar­ket off-dry pinot gri­gio for which the grape is bet­ter known. Pinot has also been a prodi­gious par­ent, with di­rect off­spring that in­clude Bur­gundy’s white chardon­nay and the red gamay grape of Beau­jo­lais. The Rhône Val­ley’s syrah and viog­nier are also de­scended from pinot.

Wher­ever pinot noir orig­i­nated, its undis­puted home turf is in the Côte d’or – Bur­gundy’s ‘golden slope’, a 60-kilome­tre ridge on which the world’s most valu­able vine­yards are planted. These east-fac­ing, clay-lime­stone slopes have been stud­ied since the 12th cen­tury, when Bene­dic­tine and Cis­ter­cian monks be­gan to de­limit in­di­vid­ual vine­yard parcels. Quite why these soils pro­duce such breath­tak­ing chardon­nays and pinot noirs will per­haps al­ways re­main a mys­tery, but their fame is such that the very best – from the superlative Grand Cru vine­yards – have be­come the pre­serve of in­ter­na­tional in­vestors and the su­per-rich.

Even within the Côte d’or, the dif­fer­ence be­tween the pinots in neigh­bour­ing vil­lages, even ad­join­ing vine­yards, can be star­tling. The vil­lage of Pom­mard, just south-west of Beaune, for ex­am­ple, makes ro­bust, earthy reds, while Vol­nay next door is renowned for its more del­i­cate, ‘fem­i­nine’ wines. To the north of Beaune, in the area known as the Côte de Nuits, pinot noir reaches its apogee in the vine­yards of Vosne-ro­manée, where es­tates are so se­cre­tive that even wine jour­nal­ists are lucky to visit and taste.

At the north­ern and south­ern fringes of the Côte d’or, in Marsan­nay-la-côte and San­te­nay re­spec­tively, pinot noir makes lighter, more af­ford­able wines than in the more fa­mous com­munes; and the vine­yard signs ad­ver­tis­ing dé­gus­ta­tions are cor­re­spond­ingly more plen­ti­ful. In the wooded hills above the Côte d’or, the cooler vine­yards of the Hautes-côtes make leaner reds that can of­fer a cheaper glimpse of the great­ness more of­ten as­so­ci­ated with the slopes be­low. To the south of the Côte d’or, on the Côte Chalon­naise, pinot noir makes tooth­some reds in the hands of star pro­duc­ers such as Do­maine Joblot in Givry.

Out­side of Bur­gundy, pinot noir is best known for its role in cham­pagne, where it joins chardon­nay and the fruity red pinot me­u­nier – it­self a com­plex ge­netic mu­ta­tion of pinot noir – in blends. In the Grand Cru vil­lages on the south­ern slopes of Cham­pagne’s Mon­tagne de Reims – most no­tably Bouzy and Aÿ – still red wines are also made from pinot noir. Pale in colour and full of the scents of cher­ries and rasp­ber­ries, these Coteaux Cham­p­enois reds are sur­pris­ingly mor­eish, but must sell for sim­i­lar prices to cham­pagne, to jus­tify their use of such valu­able vine­yards.

Else­where in north-eastern France, pinot noir makes sappy reds that are some­times rem­i­nis­cent of lighter-bod­ied bur­gundy, with­out the price tag. In the hills of Jura, to the east of Bur­gundy, and in Al­sace, to the north, pinot noir pro­duces wines that are of­ten un­fash­ion­ably pale, but are de­li­ciously thirst-quench­ing food part­ners on warm days. Sancerre Rouge is also made from pinot noir, with pro­duc­ers such as Alphonse Mel­lot and Do­maine Vacheron craft­ing se­ri­ous oak-aged reds from the grape. Even in Lor­raine, Al­sace’s lit­tle­known viti­cul­tural sis­ter re­gion, vi­gnerons in­clud­ing Nor­bert Molozay of Château de Vaux grow sur­pris­ingly com­plex pinots. And at the op­po­site end of France, in the foothills of the Pyrénées, Jean-louis Denois has pi­o­neered some of France’s most ex­cit­ing pinot noir plant­ings in the Up­per Aude Val­ley.

Do­minic Rip­pon has many years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in the wine trade, both in the UK and France, and now runs the wine mer­chant busi­ness Strictly Wine.

LEFT: Vigneron Nor­bert Molozay of Château de Vaux in Lor­raine; BE­LOW: Pinot noir vines near Am­bon­nay in the Mon­tagne de Reims; FAC­ING PAGE FROM TOP: Vine­yards in San­te­nay in the Côte d’or, home of the pinot noir grape

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